Revolutionary: Wave of the Future

Mike sylvester
M. sylvester|12.04.08

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Revolutionary: Wave of the Future
There was a time when innovations like the analog stick and rumble feedback were thought of as gimmicks that would never catch on. Some thought that 3D rendering would be limited to a few niche games, while the majority would stick to two dimensions. In the eyes of value-critical consumers, the Dreamcast looked like a crippled game box going up against the DVD-based, multimedia-rich PS2. But in time, all things change.

Going into the next generation, buying a remote pointer-less console may seem ... well, pointless. There are a lot of change-resistant "hard core" gamers out there pouting over the inevitable evolution of their controllers, but there's just no denying it anymore. Motion-sensing controllers are the wave of the future.
A few weekends ago I was setting up my new TV, connecting all my consoles, set top boxes, and my PC to it, moving from remote to remote and then to mouse and keyboard, when it dawned on me that Nintendo really hit the nail on the head with the Wii Remote. In the home theaters of the future, it's going to seem downright awkward to interact with your display by sliding a mouse across a surface, when it feels so much more natural and intuitive to instead point a remote at the screen. And awkward is just how I felt in that instance.

I've occasionally used my Wii Remote with GlovePIE to move the mouse cursor on my computer, but before the Wii debuted, the idea of moving a remote through the air to control your PC seemed almost silly. But Gyration was marketing an air mouse that did just that. Unfortunately, using just a gyroscope and accelerometer to track motion meant that there was no relative position data available. You had to click the trigger button to tell the mouse pointer to move.

Nintendo may have taken inspiration from Gyration, because as early as 2001, the two companies were working together to design a new gaming interface. Although our Wiimotes would ultimately be based on different sensor technologies, some of the money Nintendo invested in R&D with Gyration may have paid off in the development of the form factor and break-apart design. It looks like after a few more years of research, Gyration's rigid "side car" add-on concept had evolved into the far more flexible Nunchuk.

In 2007, Logitech, maker of numerous gaming, media, and productivity peripherals introduced the MX Air, which improves upon the gyroscopic air mouse by using a MEMS gyroscope similar to the one inside the MotionPlus, but with one axis less. To address the issue of having no reference point to move against, the MX Air has a button to recenter your movement. I've used this trick for a few GlovePIE scripts, and I have to say, using the Sensor Bar as a reference point beats the pants off it.

The Darwin by Motus Games, has frequently been rumored as Microsoft's answer to the Wiimote, despite Microsoft having never confirmed any association with Motus or development of a motion controller. Just one look and it's easy to see how those rumors spread, as the Darwin apparently shops at the same clothier as the Xbox 360. The supposed codename for Microsoft's motion controller is "Newton," presumably in reference to Sir Isaac Newton, whose Three Laws of Motion were the basis of scientific and technological advancement for centuries. And from the name association, we could also infer that such a device, imaginary as it may or may not be, would detect gravitational and/or inertial forces. The Darwin does that by using an accelerometer and gyroscope, giving it characteristics similar to a MotionPlus-equipped Wiimote.

Is the Darwin the fabled Newton? Maybe some day we'll find out. No demonstrations have shown the Darwin moving a cursor across the screen, or aiming a gun in a shooter, so it may need some supplementary technology to give it the complete controlling functionality of our Wiimotes. If there's one thing Microsoft wouldn't want to skimp on supporting, it's the shooters.

Although some suspect the Darwin could alternatively be under development for Sony (and a change of clothes adds credence to that rumor), there's another motion-sensing controller under development that has been associated with the PS3, perhaps only because of similar nomenclature. The TrueMotion technology being developed by Sixense, is actually far more interesting than Sony's SIXAXIS.

Sixense TrueMotion is probably the next best thing to a MotionPlus-equipped Wiimote. It's got relative positioning with a magnetic field emitter as your reference point. But instead of accelerometers or gyroscopes, the magnetic field emitter acts like a fully functioning "sensor bar" to pick up the varied motions and positioning of the controller.

It's like playing a theremin, but instead of music coming out as you move your hand through the X, Y, and Z axes of the magnetic field, those coordinates are transmitted to the computer and used to move a mouse pointer, aim a gun, or swing a racket.

Sixense could potentially offer more freedom than the Wiimote's Sensor Bar, because you don't have to point the controller directly at it to get relative positioning data. The limitations of using a magnetic field still remain to be seen.

The Wiimote has so many functions, any rival company attempting to emulate it faces a daunting task. If Sony and Microsoft want to upgrade their controllers to the new gen, they'll be challenged to design or license alternate technologies and build them into a uniquely styled remote of their own. As gaming consoles take over the home theater and change the way we interface with technology, we may begin to expect more from all of our other remotes.

Every other week, Mike Sylvester brings you REVOLUTIONARY, a look at the wide world of Wii possibilities.

From an accelerometer, to an infrared camera, to a speaker, the Wii Remote is so packed full of features and tech, it's hard to imagine what an upgrade would look like for the next generation. But Mike gave it a shot, and you can read all about it in Revolutionary: The Perfect Controller, part 2.
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